Ocean City pleasure: bountiful fall rockfish Outdoors

ON THE OUTDOORS

November 15, 1998|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- In mid-November, the sights and sounds at the south end of the boardwalk are in sharp contrast to those at the peak of the tourist season, when the parking lots are chock with cars, the promenade and beaches are packed with sun and junk-food worshipers and the smells from the Thrasher's french fries stand thicken the breeze.

Tourists are so few the municipal parking meters have been removed.

But in the nearshore waters, at the inlet and for a short distance into the back bays, there is a lightly used recreational fishery that might have the potential to send crowds of hardy fishermen down the ocean.

And it is neither tautog nor sea bass, both of which have been the main fare for jetty and inshore anglers for many years. Instead, Maryland Fisheries Service biologists say, it is striped bass, the big rockfish that migrate south along the Atlantic Coast in autumn.

"Rockfish?" asked Jay Joo, a mortgage banker from Silver Spring who was fishing from the eastern tip of the north jetty Thursday morning. "I'm after tautog. I have seen people catching rockfish here, but it's one or two now and then, and usually they are too small to keep."

Charles Robinson and Leo Tucci were bundled up as they sat along the jetty at the height of the afternoon warmth and the peak of the turning tide, talking and fishing as they have for dozens of years.

"Stripers? We don't fish for them," said Robinson, who retired from the U.S. Passport Office in Washington along with his friend, Tucci. "We usually come down starting in September through October, November and December, mostly for tautog or trout."

Tucci, who now lives in Salisbury, said he has been fishing Ocean City for 35 or 40 years, and stripers have never been a heavily targeted species.

"We're mostly tautog fishermen," said Tucci, as he sat on his bait bucket. "Maybe that's part of the reason we don't do much with stripers, which feed best at night.

"Tautog don't bite at night. When it gets dark, you might as well pack up and go home."

But for the anglers who are willing to play the tides and dress for the chilly and sometimes blustery weather of late fall and early winter, some of the best striper fishing of the year might be found along the Maryland coast.

"This is absolutely an under-utilized fishery," said Martin L. Gary, chief of the Fisheries Service Allocation and User Group Program. "And what perplexes me is that all the effort is at the inlet and the Route 50 bridge.

"Really where these fish are at this time of year -- mid-November to mid-December -- is one to three miles out in the deeper cuts inside and outside the offshore shoals."

The nearshore waters are the migration route for striped bass, fisheries biologists said, and the big stripers, which in the spring will move onto the spawning grounds in Chesapeake Bay tributaries, are off Ocean City now.

Biologists monitoring the commercial trawl fishery last week reported that over just a few days masses of stripers showed up around inshore shoals such as Little Gull and Great Gull. The migrants are expected to be passing through for two to three weeks.

Unlike the recreational rockfish seasons on Chesapeake Bay, which have variable size and creel limits depending on the time of year, Maryland's Atlantic Coast season is open year-round with a 28-inch minimum and a limit of two per day.

John Meushaw of Skip's Bait and Tackle on Talbot Street said the coastal season is largely overlooked, especially from mid-fall through early winter.

"The fall rockfishing here is absolutely fantastic," said Meushaw, whose business at this time of year is largely devoted to jetty fishermen who buy green crabs as bait for tautog. "It has nowhere near reached its potential."

Part of the reason, Meushaw said, is the variety of inshore and offshore species that draw anglers in droves from late February to early October -- flounder, croaker, sea trout, spot, blues, tautog, sea bass, shark, dolphin, tuna and billfish, among them.

"We had trout to 6 or 7 pounds until a week ago, and we caught tuna until three weeks ago," said Meushaw. "In my mind, from the middle of September to the end of November is the best fishing there is.

"But we have fished Little Gull Shoal in shirtsleeves in January and limited out every time. It's a shame there are not more people who know about it."

Monty Hawkins, captain of the O.C. Princess, has been running parties of fishermen out of Ocean City for more than 20 years. While he is aware of the stripers, his customers have shown little interest."

"I think [fishing the nearshore cuts] would be worth the effort if that's what you want to do," said Hawkins, who is running trips out of the Ocean City Fishing Center through the Sunday after Thanksgiving. "But my clients come down for sea bass."

Al Wesche of the Department of Natural Resources said there are more striped bass in Ocean City waters than he has seen since 1972. Over the past few years, he said, a spawning population has developed in Trappe Creek.

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